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Supplant Scientists Share Their Secrets – Part 3: Katja

19 April 2022

There’s a lot of science that goes into making Supplant sugars from fiber. As part of an ongoing series of interviews with our scientists, we’re finding out more about them and the fascinating work they do in our labs.     

Our latest conversation is with Dr. Katja Schaefer, a senior scientist in our strain development team at The Supplant Company. She’s been with us since November, 2021, and uses her deep knowledge of fungi to help develop our ground-breaking enzymatic technologies.    


Here’s a transcript of our conversation about Katja’s amazing work.  


What drew you to science as a career?


I’ve always, since a very young age, been interested in nature and biology. I remember growing up in Germany with the animated series “Once upon a time…life” where I first learned about metabolism, and how a cell works. It fascinated me, how proteins and enzymes interact and how organized the molecular world is. Later, in my biology undergrad, I was fascinated by how plants react and respond to their environment, and how they defend themselves against pathogens on a metabolic level because they can’t just simply run away. 


Have you always studied plant biology?

I did my research on fungi, actually, looking at the interactions between fungal pathogens and their hosts. In my Masters degree in Applied and Molecular Botany, I was working with a fungus that infects wheat and barley crops.  

I focused my later research on various fungal pathogens, and did my PhD on a tomato plant pathogen, Fusarium oxysporum, and the role of pH during the infection process. This fungus could also cause infections in humans, which led me to my post-doc position in Scotland working with the important human fungal pathogen, Candida albicans. I was investigating how human immune cells recognize fungal invaders and studied genes that play a role in virulence.   


That’s a really interesting and specific education! How did it lead you to working for The Supplant Company, and making sugars from fiber?


Yes! After 10 years of working on fungal genetics, I thought that if I ever left academia, I’d have to sacrifice that passion. But then I heard that The Supplant Company was literally looking for a fungal molecular biologist. Like, that was the job title! It was meant to be. Now I’m working on developing new strains of filamentous fungi. It fits very nicely!  


There are so many new applications for fungi in the food industry now. Can you explain a bit more about why fungi are such an important part of food system transformation?


Fungi are so interesting, and they are everywhere! They are in the air, they grow on your bread, they give you antibiotics and they are the grand recyclers of the planet. There are good and bad ones. They’re so diverse and have multiple uses, and still they constitute the most poorly understood and unappreciated kingdom of life on earth. In science, fungi are used as a model organism, to test out theories, but fungi are used in food production, too. Of course, there’s making beer, bread, and cheese, and citric acid, but there are many applications that people aren’t aware that fungi is behind. And one of them is what we do here at the Supplant Company. We use fungal-derived enzymes to create sugars from fiber. 


You clearly bring some amazing skills to the job. What’s your favorite thing to do in the lab?

I like genetics, especially working with the tools that biology and nature provides to make our fungi better at the job we want them to do.  

It’s very satisfying to have an idea first on paper and then go into the lab and bring it to life. Working with living organisms, it doesn’t always go as you planned, so when it works, you have this moment of joy.   


How does that actually happen?

You can take DNA fragments and put them together in the way you would like them to be. Every protein has a genetic code. Imagine that protein is a sentence, and a gene is a word, and DNA is the letters. And the enzymes they create is the story. So, we are literally writing a new story.  


That’s amazing. What are you excited about working on these days?


Having new ideas and translating them into real-life is so exciting. Molecular genetics can be very creative and involves a lot of troubleshooting. I love having ideas, and then I can’t wait to come to work and try them out. But genetics is a slow area of science, so it takes a long time to see results. In science you learn something new every day. Like Claude Levi Strauss said, “A scientist is not the person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asked the right questions.” 


One final question: What’s your favorite, milk or dark?

Weekends milk chocolate, and weekdays dark chocolate.   

That sounds like a great idea. Thanks, Katja!

Learn more about our Supplant scientists Gemma Humby Smith and Ryan Watkins in earlier blog posts.  

Try Supplant milk and dark chocolate for yourself at our web store!